A van apparently smuggling illegal immigrants from Mexico bolted the Border Patrol checkpoint near San Clemente Sunday and led lawmen on a 40-minute chase through Orange County, sometimes against oncoming freeway traffic.
The fleeing driver, identified only as a Mexican citizen, drove into oncoming lanes of the San Diego Freeway in Irvine and the Costa Mesa Freeway in Tustin but was stopped on the Santa Ana Freeway here before anyone was hurt, police said.
“It never really got up to high speeds,” Tustin Police Sgt. Brent Zicarelli said.
Officers said the van’s seven occupants fled, but the driver and two of his passengers were apprehended and turned over to the Border Patrol.
The van, which stopped at the checkpoint at 6:10 a.m., sped off when Border Patrol officers approached it, a spokesman said.
Border Patrol officers pursued the van up Interstate 5 and onto the San Diego Freeway in Irvine, until the van crossed the bare-earth median strip near Jamboree Road into southbound traffic. Agents then broke off the chase as being too dangerous, a spokesman said.
Local police had been alerted, however, and a Tustin officer spotted and pulled over the van at McFadden and Pasadena avenues just east of the Costa Mesa Freeway. But when he approached the van, it sped off, setting off another chase along surface streets and freeway lanes.
Zicarelli said the officer saw the van turn onto a Costa Mesa Freeway off-ramp and head north in the southbound lanes.
“If a pursuit becomes too wild, we’ll take a license plate and description and discontinue the pursuit,” Zicarelli said. But the van was not speeding, and the officer followed, staying to the shoulder with lights and siren on to warn oncoming motorists, he said. The van got off at the next on-ramp.
The van eventually stopped at 6:40 a.m. on the southbound Santa Ana Freeway near the Costa Mesa Freeway, and the occupants ran off, Zicarelli said.
“It was Sunday morning, and there was not a lot of traffic,” he said. “If it had been 6:30 Monday, we’d have lost him or broken off the pursuit or someone could have gotten hurt.”